In the book, Invitation to Anthropology, culture is described as the “shared and negotiated systems of meaning informed by knowledge that people learn and put into practice by interpreting experience and generating behavior” (Lassiter). However, current trends in globalization and networking technology are entangling people with radically different cultural values, attitudes, and practices and compelling them to negotiate within largely Western-centric models of reality that originate far beyond village and regional borders. In Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord describes the modus operandi of consumer culture: “Considered in its own terms, the spectacle is affirmation of appearance and affirmation of all human life, namely social life, as mere appearance.”
The great paradox of the spectacle of cultures of economy is the great import it gives to the appearance of being exceptional and its aversion to individuality at the same time. An acquired taste (culture in other words) is something that a good marketing campaign will never require of its consumer, it will only require that the consumer believes the illusion without question. For instance, Starbucks tells you you’re a “hipster” coffee connoisseur if you buy their product that has been stripped of the roasted acidic taste of coffee, loaded with milk and sugar, and frothed almost to oblivion: because its more accessible, ensuring that the largest number of people possible will find it agreeable. As a brand identity, it seeks to convince customers that they are taking part in a long cultural tradition of the coffee house as a community meeting place. As the book Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide explains, “The essayist Joseph Addison, who wrote regularly for The Spectator, described scenes in which ‘Knots of Theorists’ fed by ’steams of the Coffee Pot’ would dispose of monarchies and governments ‘in less than a Quarter of an Hour’” (Drucker, McVarish 88). However, today the customer is relegated to a spectator within Starbucks well-executed monopoly of appearances, which recoils from controversy. Guy Debord explains, “The first phase of the domination of the economy over social life brought into the definition of all human realization the obvious degradation of ‘being’ into ‘having.’ The present phase of total occupation of social life by the accumulated results of the economy leads to a generalized sliding of ‘having’ into ‘appearing,’ from which all actual ‘having’ must draw its immediate prestige and its ultimate function.”
I’m a big fan of Guy Debord, but I’m not completely against this idea of capitalizing on fantasy. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan argues that our principal medium for self-identity, perception, remembering, and intersubjectivity converge in fantasy. Nevertheless, I recently watched the documentary film, “The Perfect Cappuccino,” which starts as one coffee lover’s quest to find the perfect cappuccino and ends up being an exposé on the detrimental effect of consumerism on culture. If the universal motto for business is “the customer is always right,” what happens to authenticity when the customer is completely oblivious to the taste and culture of the genuine artifact? Much like big agriculture, big business tends to prefer productivity and efficiency to diversity, resulting in a market monoculture. However, the common thread that ties everything together is the lowest common denominator of culture, the self-satisfying taste of salt, fat, and sugar. As the anthropologist James P. Spradley wrote, “ethnography seeks to document the existence of alternative realities and to describe these realities in their own terms… It says to investigators of human behavior, ‘before you impose your theories on the people you study, find out how those people define the world.’”
Social media is a web-based technology that enables and mediates networked communications between individuals, communities and organizations throughout the world. Online users are encouraged to use these services to post on their movements, define their relationships, discuss their political and religious beliefs, and inform on their friends. However, the current centralized architecture of dominant social media platforms are inherently susceptible to legal and market incentives that increasingly encourage the sharing and collection of more and more private data with governments and commercial 3rd parties. This commoditization of personal data has also resulted in the balkanization of communications between users of various competitor services, which is counter to the very concept of social networking. The current model is one in which private data is voraciously hoarded within a competitive system under the assumption that companies and governments will continue to respect the rights and privacy of online users. In The Shallows, Nicholas Carr asserts that the interactivity, hyperlinking, searchability and multimedia of the Internet promote an intellectual ethic that “fragments content and disrupts our concentration” (Carr 91). E-books and electronic readers are marketed for features such as links, videos and interactive graphs that only serve to distract readers from the deep-concentrated thought that authors have long assumed to be central to the process of reading. Technologists have responded to the issue of information overload by tracking Internet users interests and creating personal, but largely opaque, filters of the entire Internet, which the internet activist, Eli Pariser, argues may be fundamentally changing the way we experience the world through the Internet by adjusting what we read, see, and hear into a self-affirming filter bubble.